Last year, the Moondog blog covered why it’s important to create beautiful, original images for your brand. Not only is it a best practice for your social platforms and other web content, it’s good marketing for your brand in general. Still not convinced? It’s time to peel back the layers of the world of stock photography. From race to age to size to disability, the search results in stock photo sites are an example of subtle and not-so-subtle whitewashing. This is a huge problem that needs to be taken into account for your brand’s marketing.
The Whitewashing Dilemma
Some clients have not prioritized original images in their marketing budget. This means that stock photos are the main source to create their social media graphics or other web content. For one client, I use the search tag of ‘woman’ rather frequently. This client’s audience is largely female and generally responds positively to images of happy women. Fine, the big stock image sites supply me with plenty images of happy women.
Here’s the rub: if I want to solely feature young, thin white women in their 20’s and 30’s, the stock photo world is my oyster.
The thing is, if I only use young, thin white women, this decision overlooks a lot of people. It feels socially irresponsible to only reflect this portion of the population. And from a business perspective, I would be ignoring the client’s buyer personas (which is not a great idea).
Taking a Deeper Look at Whitewashing
Trina Rimmer wrote an excellent blog called The Lack of Diversity in Stock Images Hurts Your eLearning—and What to Do About It. Rimmer details how, in order to find appropriate images to depict vulnerability, poverty and abuse, she had to use search terms like “black female prostitute,” “illegal farm worker,” or “neglected hungry Asian children” to yield the best results for the images she desired. Rimmer said,“ . . . the images I found only depicted one narrow aspect of diversity, and often did so in absurd or disrespectful ways.”
It’s true. And it’s a tough pill to swallow. I wanted to feature some women of color in some Twitter graphics and fumed while I searched in vain. The images that I did manage to find (and I had to hunt) were highly stereotypical shots of Asian women looking demurely into the camera, or were posed submissively. I found myself weighing my poor options: was it worse to constantly feature white women or to feature stereotypes of women of color?
Neither felt right, so I looked deeper. I was happy to find the site nappy.co, which features stock photos of brown and black people. And Medium published a blog with other great sites. The resources aren’t nearly as extensive as stocksnap.io or unsplash.com, but it’s always better to know your options and find a way to cater to all your buyer personas.
Whitewashing the Middle-Aged
Ageism is another massive problem in stock photos. If I only want to feature young women (or men), I have a plethora of choices. I can even find a few octogenarians sprinkled into the mix of search returns. The challenge of finding middle-aged women, however, is real.
The buyer personas for the client I mentioned previously include middle-aged women. But more often than not, the women I’ve featured in social media posts are of a younger demographic. We live in a youth-oriented culture, but people like to see themselves reflected in the brands they like. Representation helps confirm someone’s relationship with a brand: This product is made for me, my peer group likes and uses this brand, I belong here because I see myself aligned with this brand.
Maybe your aspirational customer or targeted customer is of one demographic, but the actual customer may surprise you. By catering to the demographics of your actual buyer persona, you may help increase brand interest, loyalty and patronage. Do a deep dive of your analytics and rethink your branding strategy to include the critical demographics.
Size Inclusivity Counts in Your Marketing, Too
I’ve written about size inclusivity in the fashion industry before, and it’s a trend that’s not going to go away. The stock photo world, however, fails to represent larger sized people in generalized search terms. Yes, they appear intermittently, but it’s an undertaking to find the images, much like people of color and people north of 40.
The average dress size for an American woman is now a size 16. Over the past few years, fashion companies have become more concerned about properly representing women’s bodies. In stock photo world, however, inclusivity of larger sizes is still a problem. Organic search on stocksnap.io fails to display larger women. If I type in ‘fat’ or ‘large’ in tandem with ‘woman’, the return results aren’t much different than the ‘woman’ search.
Fat Woman search:
The body positive movement aims to reclaim the word ‘fat’. Rather than being a negative, the term ‘fat’ is simply a fact: there’s no shame in being fat. What is a shame is that generic search terms results on stock photo sites rarely return big, beautiful women as a default. You must search specifically for them, as if to insinuate that it’s an exception to be big, which is ludicrous and harmful.
Don’t Whitewash Disability
Nearly 20% of the population in the USA has some form of disability. Many disabilities aren’t apparent from just looking at a person, like with certain types of autism or Alzheimer’s, but plenty of other disabilities are. The good news is that companies are starting to take disability into account with their products and advertising. Melissa Shang made headlines when she petitioned American Girl to feature dolls with disabilities back in 2014. Her attempts were successful and now American Girl sells wheelchairs and arm crutches. Also, just this year, Gerber announced that the 2018 winner of the Gerber baby contest has Down Syndrome.
The stock photo world, however, has limited search returns when representing people with disabilities. Unsplash has 64 images for the search term ‘disabled’ and quite a few of these images featured alarm clocks or nature shots. A search for ‘wheelchair’ provided 2 moody images of empty wheelchairs and one scooter shot in dramatic settings on stocksnap.io. Trying to find visibly disabled people in more generic search terms proved to be just as problematic as race, age and size.
Why is There so Much Whitewashing?
Who is to blame for this whitewashing problem? The photographers for their chosen subjects? Paid stock photo sites that supply the cheesy, canned images? Society at large for subtle and not so subtle racism/ageisim/body shamers/overlookers of disability? The people who download whitewashed images and use them for promotional purposes and participate in this culture? The function that fails to return diverse images for basic search terms and requires harmful language to find non-white, thin able-bodied and young people?
It’s truly hard to say, but it’s a vicious cycle that leads to continued whitewashing. The good news is that knowledge is power. Knowing that the stock photo system is highly problematic can help your brand and company do better with your marketing. Keep in mind that representation is a really powerful way to connect with your audience. And since people are very visual, having strong visuals that encompass the wide breadth of humanity is really powerful marketing.
- Invest in doing a deep dive in your buyer personas. Know your customer inside and out and make sure you find ways to represent them in positive ways.
- Consider setting aside a budget to create original photos to use for your branding. You can have creative control over the subjects and what they are doing in the pictures. It’s the best way to be inclusive. Consider Moondog Photography‘s services.
- Realize that your brand is taking a stand and that this is another positive step for your business. People respond to being heard.
Have you also experienced issues with stock photography? How has your brand taken a stand? We’d love to hear from you at Moondog Marketing & Media.
Screenshots of Unsplash.com and Stocksnap.io provided by author.